After the empty concourses began filling again with the sight of fans and the smell of popcorn, after the donation buckets at the entry gates started to fill with dollar bills, after the moment of silence for the dead and the round of applause for the first responders, after the mayor threw out the first pitch and the manager gave a short but stirring speech — “Stay strong, be strong,” he concluded — it was left to Adrian Johnson, the home plate umpire, to declare, at 1:11 p.m., the words that perhaps had never before carried so much meaning at Minute Maid Park:
Nobody inside the Houston Astros’ downtown stadium, itself looking none the worse for wear, bore any illusions Saturday as to the power of a mere baseball game to fix all the problems that still plague this city and its surrounding areas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It couldn’t, and even if the Astros, the American League’s top team, make it all the way to the World Series, it won’t amount to much tangible benefit for a region that will be digging out of debris and muck for months.
But there was a reason, as the Astros prepared to play their first home game since the storm left town just days earlier — and went on to pound the New York Mets and their unfortunately named starting pitcher, Matt Harvey, in the first game of a day-night doubleheader, 12-8 — the mayor was smiling and the players had an extra bounce in their steps and the “Houston Strong” T-shirts were flying off the shelves of the team stores throughout the stadium.
“Our last week has been chaotic,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said Saturday of his team’s storm-altered itinerary, “but it’s nothing compared to what the city of Houston and the surrounding areas have gone through. We hope we can provide a break from what’s turned into some rough days for a lot of people. . . . We try to make the city proud. We wear ‘Houston’ across our chest, and we will represent this city really well. I hope it provides a smile. I hope it provides a break from what’s going through these people’s minds.”
Tony Renteria, an Astros fan from east Houston, figured that sounded just about right. His house took on 7½ feet of water in the storm. In a best-case scenario, his family will be displaced, living with relatives, for 6-12 months while the house is rebuilt; at worst, it will be a total loss. He was given free tickets by a family member who told him, “You deserve these more than I do,” and attended Saturday’s nightcap with his wife, daughter and son-in-law.
“Being here tonight,” he said, “feels like a million pounds lifted off of me.”
A devoted Astros fan since childhood, when he attended games at the old Astrodome, Renteria, a sales account manager for Coca-Cola Southwest, said he lost track of how the team was doing on the field over the past week and completely missed the team’s trades for Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Cameron Maybin.
“We were focused on trying stay alive,” he said, “and trying to stay afloat.”
‘Something to cheer for’
The last time the Astros had played here, it was Aug. 24, and the team was packed and loaded for a three-day trip, with the city still hoping Harvey wouldn’t be as bad as predicted. But when it came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane two days later, it was worse, inflicting, as of Saturday’s accounting, at least 50 fatalities, billions of dollars in damage and a rash of stark, grotesque images no one will be able to shake anytime soon.
That weekend, the Astros, some of whom had families back home in varying degrees of emotional distress, played a three-game series in Anaheim, Calif., and instead of coming home as scheduled, diverted to Dallas to await word of their next move. Ultimately, their home series this week against the Texas Rangers was shifted to St. Petersburg, Fla., and this one nearly was, too, until Mayor Sylvester Turner came forward to say not only was the city prepared for baseball — it needed baseball.
“Quite frankly, after the week we have gone through, people need something to cheer for, and we need a sign that tomorrow will be better than today,” Turner said Saturday. “And no better way to do that than for the Astros to play ball.”
The Astros finally returned to Houston late Thursday night and awoke Friday to the full, sunlit devastation of Harvey, for which the pictures and video they had seen from afar could not do justice.
“The debris on the side of the road. The furniture stacked up. The water in places where you know there’s not supposed to be water,” center fielder George Springer said. “It’s scary. It’s sad. There’s thousands and thousands and thousands who don’t have homes to go back to. That’s a tough reality to see in person for the first time.”
Much of the team spent Friday’s off-day — originally scheduled for a night game, until the teams agreed to wait until Saturday and play a doubleheader — visiting the George R. Brown Convention Center, two blocks from their home stadium, to greet the thousands of evacuees temporarily residing there. Some Astros then diverted to nearby BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the MLS Houston Dynamo and now being used as a staging area for donated goods, and helped load boxes onto pallets. Many Mets players visited with first responders.
“It almost feels silly talking about [baseball],” Hinch said of the shelter visit, “when you’re sitting there across a table from a guy who’s trying to find socks for his kids.”
Nobody knew until it actually arrived what sort of emotions Saturday would bring. From his downtown apartment, Astros fan Tim Thorn could see fans lined up to enter the stadium at 11 a.m. and smiled for what felt like the first time in days. Although downtown was largely spared, Thorn said his mother in nearby Beaumont had to evacuate her home, and his aunt in Port Arthur had to be rescued by neighbors.
“This city needed this in a big way,” Thorn said before Saturday’s first game, wearing a custom-designed T-shirt saying, “Come Hell or High Water / We Rise United.” “People are emotionally drained. They need to get on their feet and cheer for something.”
Baseball part of city’s fabric
As the Astros jumped out to a 7-0 lead Saturday, the announced crowd of 30,319 roared like twice that number, and the players, too, appeared moved. At the end of his trot around the bases following a second-inning home run, Springer touched his chest and gestured to the crowd.
“For me, that was for them,” he said of the fans. “I want so badly to do well for these people, and I want our team to do well for our people.”
In the end, Saturday’s proceedings amounted to just one baseball game in a season of 162. There would be another one that night, and another Sunday, and another, in Seattle, on Monday. But baseball’s dailyness is part of its charm and is one reason it is a critical thread in a city’s fabric. Should they make a deep playoff run, the Astros may serve the same role for Houston that the Red Sox did for Boston in 2013 and the Yankees did for New York in 2001 — an emotional outlet for a wounded city in need of a diversion.
Asked Saturday how he planned to get his players to put aside their city’s needs and focus on the job at hand, Hinch quickly shot back:
“You know what? I don’t want it out of their minds,” he said. “I want them to think about it this week. I want them to think about it next week. I want them to think about it next month, in six months. . . . Obviously for these three hours — we’re pros. We’ll be able to compete. The baseball will take care of itself. But to be honest, I want our guys to stay connected to the rebuild.”
Those who are rebuilding also want to stay connected to this team, even if that just means three hours a night on television and an occasional visit to Minute Maid Park.
“We lost our home,” Tony Renteria said. “But here is some time for us to relieve our stress, take our minds off the house and the devastation and watch some baseball. Right now, we feel blessed.”
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